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Grizzly on Grass

Yet another painting of Berkley, but for marketing reasons and the potential implication of that goofy grin, I’m calling it Grizzly on Grass.

Aside from their efforts to rescue and take in orphaned animals, one of the things I love about Discovery Wildlife Park is their focus on enrichment. In the wild, animals are kept busy searching for food, defending their territory, and making miniature versions of themselves.

While captivity is never ideal, the animals at Discovery Wildlife Park would likely have been destroyed due to the circumstances that brought them there in the first place. Those circumstances are usually us, people who have either directly or indirectly prevented them from surviving and thriving in the wild.

The animals at the park can’t be rehabilitated and released, either because laws prevent it or they were too habituated already, which is why they needed to be here.

With 91 acres on the property, the park can provide the animals with large enclosures, complete with natural structures, clean ponds and water features. The black bears and Berkley can dig their own dens each year, or they’re given structures they can use if they choose the artificial route. It’s incredible how each bear has a different preference.
They’re provided with as much hay as they want to pad the dens for warmth and comfort. I remember Serena (the head keeper and good friend) sending me pictures and videos the first year Berkley dug her den. Berkley took the hay inside, then came out and dropped a little at Serena’s feet, asking for more, which of course, they gave her. Some bears do get up during the winter, even in the wild, but Berkley has always slept straight through.

If you’ve followed my work for any length of time, you’ll know I have a special place in my heart for Berkley. I was able to get to know her when she was weeks old and had many visits with her in the first couple of years. Discovery Wildlife Park has a large, wooded area where she could climb trees, splash around in a creek, play in the snow and wander around as she liked without any danger.

The personal contact I had with her when she was a cub created a lasting bond, and when I visit her now, she knows me. If I go to one end of her considerably large enclosure and call her, she’ll come from the other end to visit, and we’ll hang out together on either side of the fence. We can’t have close contact these days because even though she’s a very gentle bear, I’m intimidated by her size. My nervousness creates an unknown safety issue.

The park staff are incredibly dedicated and care a great deal for the animals in their care. You need only talk to them and watch their interactions to realize the trust between them. When an animal dies from medical complications or old age, it hits them all hard. They work hard to give the animals the best life they can, despite their captivity.

Survival is no longer a concern for these animals. Their diets and health are continually monitored, and they receive top vet care. The problem with captive animals, however, is that without constant stimulation, they will get bored. As a result, the animals get plenty of enrichment opportunities.

The structures in their enclosures are often changed around, diversions hidden in strange places, along with additional food. It gives them something to explore and dig out. There is a large forested fenced amphitheatre area that acts as another natural playground. The bears and wolves are taken in often and allowed to run around as they like. Not together, of course. There are many rock structures and ponds for them to play around in, with room to run. This new environment gives them plenty of stimulation, and they seem to enjoy it a great deal.

There is a high cost to maintain this type of facility, and they’re always looking for new revenue streams to help. In addition to the gift shop, campground, and winter RV storage, they rely on donations and sponsorships to keep the doors open. If you’ve ever seen the vet bill for a jaguar’s arthritis stem-cell transplant or a root canal, you’d understand.

“I’m in it for the money,” said no zookeeper ever.

When they built the amphitheatre area, they had the foresight to install a fence along one side, with large enough holes along it for camera lenses to poke through. They regularly host small groups of photographers to come and take photos of the bears and wolves in their playground. It’s an opportunity for the animals to play and for the park to raise funds to care for them.

In September of 2019, my buddy Derek, a skilled tattoo artist and painter, and I went up to Innisfail to participate in one of these photo sessions. While I enjoyed taking photos of the wolves, as I always do, I’ll confess that my main focus was Berkley. I just can’t get enough time with her.

The problem is that because she knows me, she kept coming over to the fence to say Hi, which means nobody could get any photos. Serena kept having to call her back. She finally gave me shit and said I was never going to get any pictures if I kept talking to her. I had to turn my back and retreat so Berkley would go back to enjoying the natural playground.
Once she did, we were able to get some great photos. She has a natural smile and brightness in her eyes. People often remark on the personality I create in my paintings. It’s almost like I don’t have to add any with Berkley because it’s already there. She remains my favourite subject to paint, and I can’t imagine I’ll stop anytime soon. There’s just something in that face that makes me happy.

Even though she played in the water, scratched and climbed on trees (she’s tough on trees), Berkley looked over often, and I had to be careful not to distract her. But it meant that I got some great pics of her looking right into my lens, including the reference for this painting.
I didn’t want to stop working on this image because I enjoyed it so much. Even though the finished painting is a horizontal composition, I painted it vertically to get the expression right. I’ll confess that if I get this printed for myself, a distinct possibility, I’d hang it vertically above my desk, so that goofy grin can greet me every morning.

I’m looking forward to seeing Berkley again soon. She’s up from hibernation and gaining back the weight lost during her winter slumber. Every year I wonder if she’ll still know me, but she always does, and it’s one of the best feelings in the world.

If you’d like to support Discovery Wildlife Park, you can donate or buy an annual membership on their site. They open for the season on May 1st and will be happy to see you. You can buy my prints in the gift shop and see some of my artwork around the park. Be sure to take part in their daily education talks about how to be safe in bear country and help contribute to wildlife conservation, no matter where you live. Ask plenty of questions. Education is a big part of why they do what they do.

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Painting and Peak Experience

The pervasive uncertainty of the past year continues. We can be hopeful that we’ll make progress in the next few months, with vaccines, reopening, and putting the economic engine back into gear. However, everything still comes with a big asterisk and question mark.

Even when you know that change is necessary for growth, it almost always comes at a time when we least expect it, and it’s rarely comfortable. There is the change you make happen, change that happens to you, and then change you have to make to adapt.

Over the past year, I’ve spent many hours reading and listening to articles about boosting sales, getting more followers, expanding my reach, and introducing my work to new markets. I worry about the next quarter, the one after that, and juggle the what-ifs, ad nauseam.

Nail-biting, teeth grinding, hand wringing. More than a few tossing and turning sleepless nights and heavy sighs with head in hands.

There are plenty of quotes about worry, how unproductive it is. We’ve all seen the memes.

“When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.”
– Winston Churchill

“If you treat every situation as a life and death matter, you’ll die a lot of times.”
– Dean Smith

“Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.”
– Erma Bombeck

Envying other artists, looking at their followers, careers, losing sight of the big picture, knowing that comparison is the thief of joy, but still falling for the same trap over and over again, despite knowing that it’s unproductive.

But then there are mornings I find myself at my desk, having had a welcome good night’s sleep, tunes in the earbuds, a shuffle of songs hitting all the right notes, painting tiny little hair’s on a bear’s muzzle. And I realize that I’m grinning.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the term ‘peak experience.’

From an article by Kendra Cherry, “Peak experiences are often described as transcendent moments of pure joy and elation. These are moments that stand out from everyday events. The memory of such events is lasting and people often liken them to a spiritual experience.”

Yeah, I know. It sounds out there and flaky, and you wonder what I’ve been smoking, but I believe in these moments. I’ve had them. While paddling in a canoe on a lake early in the morning as the sun’s coming up, or when a Humpback whale surfaced right beside our boat in the Broken Group Islands near Ucluelet, or when a little bear cub named Berkley decided to crawl up my back and lick my ear.

But most of the time, I have these moments while painting. Usually early in the morning when it’s still dark, about an hour into the work, drinking hot black coffee, the right song in my ears, laying down brushstrokes on one of my funny-looking animals.

It’s the feeling that, within that moment, I’m right where I’m supposed to be. Sometimes it lasts for seconds, others for minutes. It comes on like a wave, a welling up of feeling, like a hypodermic shot of happiness.

And none of that other crap seems important.

This is that living in the moment stuff they go on about in all the mindfulness articles and self-help books. At these times, I get it, and I want to bottle it for those times when I don’t.

That other real-life stuff still needs to be handled, no doubt about it. Ignoring your bookkeeping or taxes, skipping that medical checkup for the fourth time, pretending that clunking sound in your engine will go away — all of that will bite you in the ass later if you’re not paying attention.

Sometimes things work out, other times they don’t, and shit happens.

I wouldn’t say I like it, but I accept it. So, I’ll get to that other stuff.

Right after I finish painting more little hairs on this lovable bear’s face.

“Stop worrying about what can go wrong, and get excited about what can go right.”
– Anonymous

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Another Berk in Progress

Here’s a sneak peek at a new painting of Berkley that I started this morning. I took the reference for this one in September 2019 at Discovery Wildlife Park but didn’t see the potential in it until just recently.

She was lying in the grass, looking right at me, so it’s actually a horizontal image, but I’m painting it vertically so that I can get the expression right. When it’s finished, people can hang the print whichever way they want, so that’s a fun little twist.

As the painting develops, I’ll paint in blades of grass in the foreground on the right side. It will partially obscure that side of her face but give the whole image a sense of place.

Yesterday, my friend and head keeper Serena sent me a personal video and a couple of photos to let me know that Berkley has woken up from hibernation. While it’s already warming up around here, seeing that sleepy 4-year-old brown bear’s face certainly makes it feel like spring might finally be around the corner.

Having raised her from a weeks-old cub, Serena and Berkley have a special bond, and I don’t know who was happier to see the other.

I’ll share more work-in-progress shots with my newsletter followers as this painting progresses, but I don’t think this one will take long. There’s no other face I like painting more than Berkley’s.

Almost all of the animals at Discovery Wildlife Park are orphans and rescues; many are brought to them from Alberta Fish and Wildlife. These are animals they can’t release back into the wild and would otherwise have to destroy.

While animals in captivity are never ideal, people have made many bad choices, and there are very few places in the world where animals are truly wild outside of protected regions.

I live in an area where trains, highways and tourists are the biggest threat to bears, wolves and other wildlife. By leaving food in easy reach, approaching wildlife, and even deliberately feeding them, we teach them to associate people with a free meal. When they eventually become too comfortable or even aggressive, they often must be euthanized.

Hazing and relocation to other areas will occasionally work, but most often, the damage has already been done and is irreversible.

Discovery Wildlife Park works to educate guests and visitors about coexistence and conservation, which is why I support their efforts.

But without financial support, they wouldn’t be able to do the work they do.

Discovery Wildlife Park is closed for the season right now, but they’ll be open May 1st. With 90 acres of space in which to move around, it’s a great place to get outside and spend time with the animals while still being able to social distance. While you’re there, make time for their daily scheduled presentations to learn how you can help keep wildlife wild.

Memberships are currently on sale for almost 50% off, granting unlimited admission all season.
© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt

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Another Day of Discovery

I’m not breaking any news here when I point out that most businesses have had to adjust to operational difficulties during the past six months. Many had to close, some permanently. For the ones that survived, the opening came with severe restrictions, reduced hours and a strange new reality.

Discovery Wildlife Park began its late-season start as a drive-thru. People could visit the park, but had to stay in their vehicles, while staff did their best to ensure a worthwhile experience. It proved to be quite popular, especially since there were few options elsewhere for a family outing at the time.

Once allowed to fully open, they had reduced hours, but visitors could roam freely while keeping their distance from other guests. The park itself is a well-manicured open-concept venue, and just walking around the place is relaxing. Add in the rescued and orphaned animals, and it’s a unique experience.

Their season ends typically on Thanksgiving, but this year the last day is September 30th. With that date looming and the fantastic fall weather this year, I made the time on Monday to drive up and spend the day taking photos.
As always, my first stop was to see Berkley, a brown bear I’ve known since she wasn’t much bigger than a cat. She has a massive enclosure all to herself, complete with a pond, big fallen trees on which to climb and plenty of daily attention from staff and guests alike.
In August, Berkley weighed in at 388 pounds. As she’s been preparing for her long winter’s nap by eating a lot more, I suspect she’s well over 400 now. She’ll turn four years old this coming January and still isn’t full grown. Given the excellent care the animals receive at the park, Berkley is one of the healthiest brown bears you’ll ever see. Her thick, luxurious coat sometimes makes her look like she might be carrying a little extra weight, but she’s fit and lean.

It never fails to make me smile when I call her name, and she ambles down to see me, even if she’s at the other side of her enclosure. It’s such a privilege to sit on the grass and look into those beautiful brown eyes.
Serena (the head keeper and Berkley’s Mom) and the staff have become friends over the years. I’m ever grateful for the behind-the-scenes access they give me when I visit. During the bear presentation, I was able to take up-close unobstructed photos and got some nice reference pics of the black bears. I tried to hide a little during Berkley’s part of the presentation. She tends to get distracted if she sees people she knows.
In the middle of the day, I drove ten minutes down the road to have a visit with my folks and meet their new little animal; a Yorkie named Lily. Once again, the first favoured LaMontagne child has four legs and a fur coat. She’s a skittish little thing, but she seemed to like me. A baggie full of dog treats helped.

Upon my return to the park for the lion presentation, I got another nice batch of photos. I’ve wanted to paint their male lion, Griffin, for some time. While I still don’t have THE shot I’ve been looking for, I did get plenty to paint other images.
While nobody knows what the future holds, I expect a winter with even more time indoors than usual. With a topped-up stock of new photo reference, I’ll be using that time to paint and write.

Lions, tigers, and bears…oh my.

And an elephant.

Cheers,
Patrick

___

© Patrick LaMontagne
Follow me on Instagram @LaMontagneArt
Sign up for my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

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Bear Wonder

I’m not big on tradition, but I came up with an idea for one on New Year’s Day.

To start the year off on the right foot, I decided to get up early as usual and begin a new painting. Looking through my reference pic library, I came up with quite a few that would be good subjects, but none felt right for the first one of the year.

I kept coming back to the Berkley folder, containing hundreds of photos. Part of me thought that I should paint something else since I’ve painted her six times already.

But who am I kidding? I could paint her many more times without getting tired of it. And for those who aren’t as enamoured with bears as I am, especially THIS bear, I’ll get to other animals soon enough.

Since the world often seems like it’s going to hell in a handcart these days (it’s really not, you know), starting the year off with a painting of Berkley seems like a tradition I can wrap my head and heart around. She always makes me happy.

She’s in deep sleep hibernation right now, but I’m looking forward to seeing her again in the spring, to take new photos to add to the library.

For the artists and technical folks, the full-size file is 40”x30” at 300ppi, painted in Photoshop on a Wacom Cintiq 24HD. No photos are ever part of my art; it’s all brushwork. As for how long it took to paint, as people always ask, I have no idea. I’m working on other stuff in the same period I’m working on a painting. More than 10 hours, less than 20, that seems like a reasonable guess.

Prints will be available soon.

Cheers,
Patrick

© Patrick LaMontagne
@LaMontagneArt
If you’d like to receive my newsletter which features blog posts, new paintings and editorial cartoons, follow this link to the sign up form.

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Fall Photos at Discovery Wildlife Park

An opportunity recently came up to do a fall photo shoot at Discovery Wildlife Park. I got the text while hanging out at Electric Grizzly Tattoo here in Canmore, which Shonna calls my artist support group.

The owner, Derek Turcotte, and I have gone on drives into Kananaskis looking for wildlife from time to time, and both of us like taking our own wildlife reference photos. I’m always up for taking photos at the park, especially when it’s an official photo shoot. Derek was into it too, so I booked it. $150 each, which was well worth it, since the money goes to support the park.

We drove up on Saturday, leaving just after 3:00 as Derek was tattooing a client all day. Thankfully traffic worked out with no delays en route, because we were cutting it close. We just made it for the 5:30 start. Serena, Belinda and Nadia met us at the main building and took us down to the photo shoot area in their ‘limo,’ which is just a golf cart with extra bench seats.

Discovery Wildlife Park has created a staged area in the woods on their property. It was already a natural area, but they’ve added some rock and water features and the backdrop is the side of the gully in which it sits. Running along one side of the area is a long, tall fence. This is designed specifically for photo shoots and the mesh of the fence is large enough that you can put a lens through it.

Derek and I were joined by two women who had also booked the shoot and with only four of us along the fence, we had plenty of room to move about, didn’t have to worry about getting in each other’s way and the opportunities for great photos were limited only by our own skills.For the first part of the shoot, the wolves Nissa and Lupé were let loose in the large enclosure. Through positive reinforcement with treats and praise, they would pose on marks, run around together, play and explore. The light kept changing as it shone through the trees, creating natural spotlights which was wonderful when the wolves would be caught in one.

After the wolves returned to their own large enclosure in the park, it was time for Berkley to join us.

I last saw her in July and she has grown bigger still. She’s now just shy of 350 lbs and is really showing her adult features. While she still has her wonderfully expressive childlike face and lovable personality, it is easy to see the big bear she will eventually become.

As I’ve mentioned before, it is always a pleasant surprise when she recognizes me and wants to visit. At first, she ran into the enclosure and I could see her coming around the top on the other side of the trees. She moves really fast when she wants to and came barrelling down the path beside the fence. When she got to where I was standing, she slowed right down and did a double take as if to say, “Hey, it’s you!”

That never gets old.
Of course, it did present a little bit of a problem when it was time to take pictures, because Berk just wanted to visit. Telling her to go see her Mom didn’t work, and Serena basically had to scold the four of us to stop talking to her, or we wouldn’t get any pictures.

We had to ignore her so that she would go to Serena, but once she did, she had a great time. From attacking trees, to playing on the large rocks, following Serena around and doing tricks for treats, my camera shutter just kept going rapid fire.
Sure, Berkley would occasionally look my way and then come over, but I just had to stand up and turn away for her to forget the distraction and go back into the middle of the enclosure. I felt bad for doing it, but I still got plenty of visiting time with her a little later on and before we left.

Derek was pretty thrilled to be that close to a grizzly bear, as were the other two photographers. I realized that I’ve gotten a little too used to having so much time with Berkley, that I forget what a unique privilege it is to have a (not-so) little bear friend. There’s nothing like looking into those eyes and that wonderful face.

Derek told me he wasn’t sure if I’d been exaggerating how much Berkley ‘knew’ me or not, so he got to see that first hand. He said it was great to finally see the place and meet some of the people I often talk about, and now he knows why.

With the light in the sheltered photo area fading enough that it was getting difficult to get any more good photos, Berkley left us and Serena offered us the opportunity to take some photos of Gruff, as his enclosure is up on the main flat area of the park, so we still had ten minutes of light to work with.
Derek was primarily looking for tattoo reference and for his own painted work, so Gruff performing his scary bear impression was something he was excited to get. Even though I just painted that very expression, I took some more photos and think I got even better reference of that than the last time. Might be another painting coming one day.

Although it required a four hour round trip drive for two hours at the park, both Derek and I felt it was well worth our time and we’ll do it again next year when the opportunity comes up. The fading light and sometimes fast motion of the wolves and Berkley created some photography challenges that resulted in more lost shots than we would have liked, but that’s part of photography, and life in general. You learn more from the mistakes and failures than the successes. Whether it’s taking the photos or painting from them, there’s more to learn than I will ever have time for in this life.

I took over 2600 photos, and after a few hours of going through them yesterday, ended up with about 100 worth keeping, including quite a few that will work as wonderful reference pics for future paintings.
I don’t know if it’s the last time I’ll see Berkley before she goes down for hibernation, but if it is, it was a nice visit on which to end the year. Discovery Wildlife Park closes for the season after Thanksgiving, so if you’re in the area, there’s still time to see the animals before that.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Brown Bear Beauty


Yes, it’s another painting of Berkley, without apology.

Every time I see her, I think of all of the garbage I pay attention to in my daily life that just isn’t important, stuff I should let go. If I had to pick one word to describe this little bear, it’s joy. She sure knows how to live in the moment and has a personality that just can’t help but make you smile.

I was up at Discovery Wildlife Park in the middle of last month and Berkley’s enclosure was my first stop. With the camera ready, I went to the bottom of her large enclosure and seeing her at the other end, I called out to her. She looked, sniffed the air and came right to me. I tried to take shots of her while she was coming, but no dice.

Once she got to the fence and I started to talking to her, there was no chance for good photos, too close to the fence. She started digging as she usually does so I walked only the fence line with her and she followed me. Just a cartoonist and a bear going for a walk, it’s still a strange but wonderful experience.

At one point, other visitors came up to the fence so I stepped back so they could see her, but because I was behind them, she started digging again and accidentally hit the electric wire that surrounds the enclosure. There was a loud snap, Berkley let out a startled ruffing growl and ran away into her enclosure.

It’s important to note that the electric fence is the same as a cow fence. It doesn’t hurt her and is of low enough power that it just acts as an annoying deterrent and the animals learn to avoid it. The keepers regularly come into contact with the wires and get zapped themselves, with no lasting effects.

Berkley retreated to her large pile of tree trunks in the middle of her enclosure. Last year, she dug her hibernation den beneath it, so I imagine that’s her safe space. She was sulking a bit, but crawled around on top, and I was able to get some nice photos without the fence showing up in the shots.

It didn’t take her too long to forget about the shock and she came right back over to the fence to continue our visit.

There’s a lesson there, about moving on from the negative stuff, one I still have yet to learn.

Cheers,
Patrick
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Happy Baby

The difference between art for a hobby and art for a living, is that whenever I start a new painting, I often have to weigh the enjoyment of the image I plan to paint vs. the marketability of the finished piece. Regardless of the outcome, I’m always going to get some level of satisfaction from the work, because I’m still drawing and colouring, but I’ve also got bills to pay and a career to think about, so there are business concerns to consider.

I’ve done a couple of fully rendered paintings of Berkley already and both are prints that sell quite well. I’ve also done quite a few sketch paintings of her. It would probably be the smarter move to paint another wolf, or a different bear, or another big cat or an animal I haven’t painted yet, to further round out the portfolio and upload to my licensing agency.

While this will still end up as a print, there are times I just want to paint something for me, and Berkley just makes me happy.

I won’t rehash our entire history here, but the short version is that Berkley is a rescued Kodiak cub who lives at Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail, Alberta. She’s been living there since early spring of 2017 and is thriving in her environment. As I’m friends with the head keeper, who is essentially Berkley’s Mom, I was able to visit her a number of times during her first year.

Discovery Wildlife Park sits on almost 100 acres and in addition to their large enclosures for their rescued and orphaned animals, they have a large wooded area on their property. As it is still a fenced enclosure, Serena used to take Berkley for walks every night in the woods where she could freely climb trees, eat berries and run around being a bear cub. Joining them on a few of those walks was an experience that changed me. Berkley has the most wonderful playful personality and I took thousands of photos of her, which left me with hundreds of reference pics to paint from. I will most likely paint Berkley for years to come, because that little face just makes me smile, especially because of the memories it conjures up. My wife, Shonna got to know her as well and we both have a special place in our hearts for that little bear.

Now that Berkley has become a bigger bear, well over 200 pounds and growing still, those close contact opportunities for anyone but the keepers are over. It’s a safety thing, for both Berkley and others, but I still like to visit her with a fence between us, and she knows me, which never fails to surprise me.

Regular followers will already have seen this photo more than once (twice, three times), but it’s one of my favorite pictures of my life, so I’m sharing it again for anyone who hasn’t seen it. It just sums up how special that whole experience was. I knew how rare it was while it was happening.

I named this painting Happy Baby for the obvious reason, but also because of a yoga pose by the same name. Shonna and I have been going to yoga each week for many years and it’s an awkward, vulnerable, unattractive pose, but Berkley seems to do just fine with it. Or at least her version of it.

On one of Shonna’s and my excursions with Berkley in the woods last September, Serena was horsing around with Berkley and telling us how much she loves bear feet. The following short video explains it pretty well, and is the reason I painted Berkley in this pose.

If you’d like to see a little longer version of that evening’s antics, here’s that one, too.

Cheers,
Patrick

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The Bear Berry Buffet


Late last month, Shonna and I drove up to Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail for one more regular season visit. With kids back in school, waning light and cooler temperatures, it gets quieter as Thanksgiving approaches, their last weekend before closing until May.

They still do their shows as advertised, though. As we were told, everybody paid their admission, so they’re entitled to the same experience whether it’s busy or not.

The bear presentation is a bit of a head fake, because even though you get to see the bears show off their training, it’s primarily an opportunity for keepers to educate a captive audience about conservation and safety. They talk about the differences between black bears and grizzlies and what to do should you encounter either while out in the woods. I’ve seen the bear show a few times, but as it was a small group and we’ve gotten to know the keepers, we figured we’d sit in again just to be polite.

Of course, the moment you get cocky and think you know a lot, that’s when you learn something new and get taken down a peg.

While Serena was talking about Charley and Angel, two of their black bears, she told us about hyperphagia. I’m pretty well read, have lived in bear country for more than twenty years, but I honestly can’t recall hearing that word before, or at least not so it registered. From being bear aware and years of local warnings every fall, I know that bears are eating a lot this time of year to prepare for hibernation, but I had never looked into the science.

From the North American Bear Center website, “Experimental studies with captive bears revealed the following: …Hyperphagia is a period of excessive eating and drinking to fatten for hibernation. Black bears with unlimited food and water ate 15,000 to 20,000 kcal per day and drank several gallons.”

According to Serena, it’s a chemical process that happens this time of year, making them eat anything and everything they can get. The Park provides plenty of extra healthy food for them during this stage to prepare them for hibernation. On this particular day, we were told that their black bears had just finished this stage and were starting to slow down.

In the wild, it can be a dangerous time of year to run into bears, because they’re so focused on eating and not so much on their surroundings. So if hikers aren’t making enough noise, they might surprise a feasting bear, which can have less than desirable consequences.

Bears in captivity still hibernate and Discovery Wildlife Park makes them as comfortable as possible in their enclosures while they sleep. Some make use of the large culverts provided, a manmade cave, while others dig their own dens in their enclosures. What many don’t know, however, is that bears still do wake up in the winter. This happens even in the wild, especially on nice sunny days, but they won’t stay up for long.

There is one bear, however, who won’t go to ground this winter at Discovery Wildlife Park, and that’s Berkley, their Kodiak Cub. She’s not even a year old yet, has plenty of energy and is still marveling at the world around her. She’s seen snow a few times and appears to enjoy it quite a bit. Serena has said that Berkley likely won’t hibernate for a few years, but she might slow down a little during the winter months.

That being said, Berkley still appeared to be under the influence of hyperphagia. Shonna and I had the pleasure of going for a walk with her in the woods that evening. On a previous excursion, Berkley seemed to want nothing more than to explore, climb trees and play. On this visit, however, she just wanted to eat.




Like a kid in a candy store, she stopped at every berry bush she could find and proceeded to chow down. It was fascinating and fun to watch. Then when she discovered Serena had peanuts, she whined like a little baby until she was given some.

Of course, when they find the treat that each bear likes best, that becomes a golden opportunity to use it for positive reinforcement and enrichment. Berkley has proven herself to be a smart bear and learns new behaviours quickly, especially when peanuts are involved.
Another black bear at the park named Reno has a thing for guacamole. I met this gentle giant in early 2016 and he’s a wonderful bear. Reno is 22 years old and has been raised at the park his whole life. He weighed one pound when they got him.

He had some issues with his lungs last month and is still recovering, but he was on the mend when we saw him, turning a corner thanks to the antibiotics. They had managed to get him to drink enough fluids without having to put him on an IV and we got to see some of his extra special TLC when we were there.
At one point, while Serena and Mari were in the enclosure with him, he started to urinate and they excitedly grabbed a specimen bottle to collect it before he was finished. They were positively giddy. You know you love your bear when his peeing makes your day. It was a good sign for his recovery and here’s hoping Reno continues to improve.

Vet bills for a bear aren’t cheap, but they do everything they can for their orphans and rescues at this place. It’s a big job, keeping all of these critters housed, fed, and healthy, both physically and mentally. I continue to be impressed with their dedication to these animals and am forever grateful they’ve allowed me to be a part of it. From sketch paintings to finished prints, I’ve painted most of their bears at Discovery Wildlife Park. I hope to keep doing so for many years to come.

Cheers,
Patrick

Here’s a video of our evening with Berkley last month. I suggest you watch it in HD on YouTube.

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A Walk in the Park

When you’re self-employed, you’re always working. If it’s not a planned vacation or camping trip, I do some work every day. But I also make my own schedule, which allows me to take an afternoon hike and to visit popular places like Discovery Wildlife Park or the Calgary Zoo on quieter days.

My wife, Shonna, has a full-time and part-time job, a workaholic for as long as I’ve known her. As a result, scheduling time off together is usually a dance requiring some difficult choreography.

We go out to dinner or lunch once in a while, go on vacations, and still spend a lot of our time off together, but we don’t do date nights, rarely observe birthdays or anniversaries, and we loathe Hallmark holidays. I think we might have gone out for Valentine’s Day once before we were married and we haven’t exchanged Christmas gifts in well over a decade. Might seem odd to some, but it has worked well for us for the past twenty-seven years.

Of all the times I’ve gone to Discovery Wildlife Park over the last couple of years, Shonna has only been there once, and she never got to see any animals. Up visiting family, we stopped in to drop off prints while the park was still closed for the season. So she met the head zookeeper Serena and one of the other keepers I know, but that was it.

And yet, while she enjoys the stories and fun photos I come home with after these visits to the park, Shonna hadn’t been able to experience it.
Berkley is growing up fast, so I told Shonna that I really wanted her to come to the park and see her before she was no longer a cub. We both looked at our schedules, figured out a day to visit the park, and she took a rare midweek day off.

I’ve already been given more opportunities with Berkley than I could have ever hoped for, and I suspected she might be too big now to risk being up close and personal with strangers. But I’ve gotten to be friends with Serena and we both know each other well enough to be candid without hurt feelings. An example is that I can ask difficult questions about animals in captivity without her being offended, because she knows I just want to learn and abandon any misconceptions.

So when I asked Serena if Shonna and I could join her on an evening walk with Berkley, I made it clear that I fully expected the answer to be No and that I was fine with that.

I was thrilled when she said, “Yes.”

Serena already knows I won’t do anything to endanger Berkley or myself. She knows what Berkley will do; it’s always people who are the unknown variable. I assured her that I married somebody more intelligent than myself, and Shonna would be completely respectful of Berkley’s space. Serena has also wanted to spend some time with Shonna because of how often I’ve talked about her.

We arrived about 7:30PM and Serena was waiting for us. We got out of the car, and Berkley went right to Shonna, which doesn’t surprise me. Animals like me, but they all seem to like her better. Even my parents’ dog, who gets excited when she sees me, will pass me up for Shonna. It’s humbling.

Shonna simply stood where she was and let Berkley sniff around her feet. When Berkley stood up on her hind legs and put her paws up on Shonna, she didn’t flinch. Serena came over, told Berkley No, and put her back to the ground. Berkley seemed to think, “whatever” and just walked away.

Serena later told me that Shonna’s easy going reaction told her all she needed to know when it came to trusting her with Berkley.

Over the next hour or so, we walked in and out of the forest on the property. We didn’t make Berkley do anything. The whole point of her evening walks is to let her be a bear. She’d take off into the woods, climb a tree, disappear into the bushes and then burst back onto the trail.
She has recently decided that Mom isn’t busy enough working long hours seven days a week, so Berkley finds burrs to collect, which Serena must then pick out of her fur.

We chatted the whole time, about this and that, just three people having a regular walk in the woods, except for the little bear running around us. Most of the time, she didn’t care where we were. She just did her own thing. When she got close, I’d take some pictures and then she’d head off again.
At one point, Shonna was sitting on a large rock when Berkley decided to really check her out. She put her paws on her leg, then snuffled her ear and apparently licked it which was funny, but also kind of gross. A wet-willy from a bear tongue.

Berkley decided she wanted some of Shonna’s water. Serena apologized and said it was the same kind of bottle she often brought for Berkley so she thought it was hers. Shonna was happy to share, bear slobber and all.

We took her up to the main park area, walking past large enclosures where black bears Charley, Gruff, Angel and others lounged in the grass in the setting sun. We walked between the lion and jaguar cages, the big cats VERY interested in the little morsel scurrying past them. Berkley wasn’t phased.
For the first time, I got to see Berkley’s night-time enclosure. Up until now, since they first got her earlier this year, she has lived at Serena’s house with her husband and kids. Berkley has gone home with her every night and comes to work with her every morning.

I had asked before when she’d be making the transition to staying at the park, and the answer has always been, “when she’s ready.”

Serena has raised many orphaned and rescued animals from babies and a number of them have lived at her house until they were big enough to be comfortable alone at night. She has managed this transition many times before with bears, lions, and other critters.

That week Berkley had just started her park overnights and that night was going to be her third alone in her pen, half of a large sea container complete with bedding, hay, water, food and whatever else she needed to feel comfortable.

Just as a dog takes comfort in a kennel or crate, these animals feel safer in their own space at night and they all have somewhere protected to go when it gets dark. What I found most comforting was that when we approached the kennel, Berkley went right inside, took a drink and then came back out. Clearly, she was comfortable with the space.

Just a couple of days ago, I asked Serena how the transition was going and she said she was adjusting well.
We took Berkley back into the woods where she could play in the creek, climb some trees, dig in the dirt and tire herself out. She checked us out from time to time, but we weren’t nearly as interesting as all of the other sights and smells of the forest.

The next day, we returned to the park as regular guests, bringing donuts and muffins for the keepers and staff as a thank-you. We watched the wolf and bear shows which are always informative and entertaining. All of the animals are trained using positive reinforcement and the loving relationship between the keepers and animals is obvious.
Education is a big part of these shows. Folks get valuable lessons in how to hike and camp safely, and what to do should they encounter a black bear or grizzly in the wild. They’re told about why it’s a bad idea to stop on the highway to take pictures of wildlife, and how a fed bear becomes a dead bear. It’s a better way to teach than to simply hand out a brochure. These orphaned and rescued animals provide an education to prevent future orphan and rescue situations.

They call it a show, but it’s much more than that. This isn’t a circus where the animals are trained to entertain. Training is a part of their enrichment. By using food, praise, and generous shows of affection, their minds are kept active solving problems.

What might look like a simple trick to you and me is what keeps them mentally and physically healthy. We watched Charley the black bear figure out a new trick he just learned that week, which was putting a ball in his toy box. He kept missing the box, would look to Serena for his reward and when he didn’t get it, she’d pick up the ball, throw it a short distance and she’d encourage him to try again.

After the third try, he got it in the box and received his reward. Granted, he destroyed the box in the process, but he learned something new and worked it out. Serena has told me in the past that they have to keep coming up with new tricks because they’ll soon get bored of the old ones.

I noticed recently on their Facebook page, somebody expressed concern over making the lions jump from platform to platform. Serena diplomatically pointed out that it keeps their muscles and minds active. All reinforcement is positive and in this situation, they weren’t even in the enclosure with the animals, so if the lions didn’t want to do it, they just wouldn’t do it.

The best part about my visits to the park is how much I take away from each visit. I’m always learning something new and this day was no exception.

Best of all, a couple of days later, Shonna told me it was one of the best gifts I’d ever given her.

And it wasn’t even a Hallmark holiday.

Cheers,
Patrick

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